Monday, September 1, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: A New Dawn


Star Wars: A New Dawn” is an important entry into the Star Wars library for a few reasons. First, it is the first book in Disney’s new Star Wars canon. In other words, this book is just as much a part of the Star Wars saga as any of the movies. Second, this book introduces readers to a few of the main characters in the upcoming animated TV show “Star Wars: Rebels.”

To be perfectly honest, I had not been particularly excited about “Rebels.” I had some issues with “The Clone Wars” and the same creative team is heading “Rebels.” From what I’d seen thus far, it seemed like the beginning of the Disneyfication of Star Wars. So I was initially somewhat skeptical of this book. That said, John Jackson Miller is one of my favorite Star Wars authors, so it had that to its credit.


I was pleasantly surprised by the main protagonist, Kanan Jarrus. In the trailers for the TV show, Kanan appeared to be just a “cowboy Jedi” (Dave Filoni’s words, not mine). However, in “A New Dawn,” Kanan comes across as a character with real depth. To some extent, he’s another “smuggler with a heart of gold,” but the novel takes that trope much further than we’ve seen in Star Wars before. Kanan is an inveterate womanizer. I am pretty sure that he’s the biggest “player” we’ve ever seen in the Star Wars galaxy. He has some great lines. Yet, it’s also clear that he’s hiding real pain as he tries to cope with the loss of the Jedi Order. JJM uses point of view in interesting ways to contrast Kanan’s self-perception – that he’s hard-edged and cynical – against the reality – that can’t help himself from helping others. I’d go so far as to say that he’s potentially the most interesting Jedi in the current Star Wars canon.
Hera Syndulla, the main pilot of the “Rebels” TV show, also gets some nice characterization. She’s not quite as interesting as Kanan, but I appreciated her competence and wit. I love how she regularly cuts through Kanan’s flirtations and other nonsense with a quick barb. We don’t learn as much about her background, but it’s clear that she has deep and personal reasons for hating the Empire.

Unfortunately, the villains don’t fare nearly as well. The primary antagonist, Count Vidian, is a business executive and management consultant working for Emperor Palpatine. Although having a businessman as a villain could have provided for some unique and interesting scenarios, in practice Count Vidian comes across as mix between Mitt Romney and General Grievous. Like Grievous, Vidian is a cyborg who kills subordinates for flimsy reasons. Unlike Darth Vader, Vidian never really acquires much depth. He is a sadist who uses his brawn rather than his brain. Aside from a few consulting catchphrases (“Forget the old way!”) there’s really nothing that distinguishes him from other generic Star Wars villains.

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This is all a bit disappointing because JJM is usually excellent at creating memorable multidimensional villains. The Sith Lords in “Knight Errant” remain some of my favorites in Star Wars. Ironically, the book seems almost self-aware of this problem as several characters comment that they’d expected Vidian to be more reasonable or unlike other Imperials. Given that much of the plot later in the book focuses on Vidian and secrets of his identity, the fact that I just didn’t care about him ended up being a real drag on the book.

We’ve seen a bit of the Dark Times in comics but haven’t had many stories set in this era of Star Wars. JJM does a great job setting up the context, showing readers why it’s called the “Dark Times.” The Empire appears omnipotent and omnipresent. It trammels on individual lives carelessly and casually. JJM clearly took inspiration from real-world dictatorships to describe the Empire’s security state. We even get some insight into the people who work for the government through a Zaluna, a Sullustan who works at a surveillance firm. It’s fascinating hearing her attempting to justify her actions spying on ordinary citizens.

The plot itself is a bit less exciting. In short, Count Vidian wants to mine more resources from a moon, but doing so risks its destruction. The protagonists set out to stop him. Seems like a standard story akin to Avatar or Fern Gully. Yet, the book never really engages with those types of environmental themes. One is never really given a reason to care for the moon (aside from the general fact that we don’t like Imperials blowing up moons). We hear that the moon has a nature reserve but never get a sense of its beauty. I found myself more interested in seeing Kanan and Hera interact than in how the plot unfolded.

If this book were an advertisement for the “Rebels” TV show, I’d say it’s mostly a success. Mostly. The book is stronger on characters context than on plot. The protagonists are much more interesting than I’d expected and I’ll be interested to see where they go from here. Count Vidian might not appear in “Rebels” so I don’t know if he is typically of the villains we’ll see in the TV show (hopefully not). This is not the best Star Wars novel by JJM, but I’m definitely more excited for the TV show than I was before. I do hope it matches the tone and characterizations found in this book.

[I received an advance version of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

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